Tuesday, March 21, 2023 Mar 21, 2023
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Ardor in the Court

The trial judge was sneaking around on his wife, skiing with one of the lawyers—platonically, he claims. Then he fell in love, left his wife, and everything got complicated.
By Jamie Thompson |

Judge John Peyton Jr. said he was going to a Christmas party, and his wife wanted to believe him. But when Tina Peyton returned home from work on that Friday afternoon, she needed to be certain. The couple had been married for 33 years, but recent months had been difficult. She’d received calls from friends saying they’d seen her husband around town with a probate lawyer who sometimes practiced in John’s court. Tina told them she wasn’t worried. Her husband had been friends with that woman for decades; nothing was going on.

But as John, 73, became more quiet and distant, Tina’s suspicions grew.

Picture of Health: Tina and John Peyton—seen here in the early 1980s—were married for 35 years. They disagree on how happy that time was.
Picture of Health: Tina and John Peyton—seen here in the early 1980s—were married for 35 years. They disagree on how happy that time was.

She went online and bought a SpyTec GPS tracker. One morning around 3 am, Tina crept into the driveway and slipped the small black device in her husband’s Suburban. Over the next two days, the tracker sent minute-by-minute updates to Tina’s laptop, tracking her husband’s location with a blue dot on a city map.

In her kitchen that Friday afternoon in December 2015, Tina logged into the program. The dot showed her husband leave work just before 5 pm and drive to a holiday party at a law firm on Maple Avenue. She expected him to stay there for a couple of hours. But after 51 minutes, the dot started moving again.

Her husband drove through the Park Cities then headed north, finally stopping at Medical City Dallas Hospital on Forest Lane around 6:20 pm. That made sense to Tina. As a probate judge who specialized in mental illness cases, John sometimes was called to hospitals.

Thirty minutes passed. Then an hour. And two things occurred to Tina. One, she wasn’t sure Medical City had a psychiatric ward. And two, she knew the female probate lawyer, the one she had been receiving calls about, lived nearby. Tina had set up an alert on the tracker to notify her if John got within a couple miles of the woman’s house.

Tina grabbed her keys, slid behind the wheel of her black Buick Regal, and headed toward Medical City. She says she was angry and afraid of what she might find, but also tired of feeling like a fool. How stupid do you think I am? She circled the parking garage, looking for her husband’s car. She spotted it near the back. Empty.

Tina waited. As the minutes passed, she thought about how she had gotten there, a 60-year-old new grandmother, staking out a parking lot to see if the man she’d spent half her life with had a mistress.

She found a napkin in her car and wrote a note to her husband: I don’t think there’s any reason for you to come home tonight.

As she walked toward his car, a Cadillac SUV coasted toward her. Tina peered into the headlights, and it came to a stop. She approached the driver’s side and saw the lawyer, Mary Burdette, 63, staring at her. In the passenger seat sat her husband, looking shocked.

One Saturday evening this past April, four months after Tina caught her husband in the parking garage, attorney Wes Holmes was drinking a Shiner Bock and grilling ribs in his backyard. His phone buzzed at 6:41 pm.

judge peyton is getting a divorce. May have had an affair with burdette. May have been going on during your trial. Divorce is in dallas county. Maybe you should talk to his wife.

Wes texted back: Wow. Who is this?

No response.

A former scout team linebacker for the Baylor University football team, Wes had been practicing law since 1989 and specialized in probate and business litigation. He had spent more than a year involved in a contentious probate case in Judge Peyton’s court, with a brother and sister fighting over their father’s $100 million company. The judge had a reputation for being fair and mild-mannered. Was it possible, Wes wondered, that Judge Peyton was romantically involved with a lawyer on the opposing side?

The next morning, Wes opened his laptop and pulled up the county records site. This probably isn’t true, he thought. But sure enough, Judge Peyton had filed for divorce two months earlier, in February. He got his co-counsel on a conference call. Two of the lawyers he was working with had also received the anonymous text.

Silence stretched over the line as the attorneys contemplated what to do. They couldn’t ignore this information, because it could have impacted their client’s shot at a fair trial. Also, losing the case before Judge Peyton meant they hadn’t gotten their contingency fee, possibly $20 million. If true, these allegations might give them another shot at winning the case.

But accusing a sitting judge of having an extramarital affair would not make them any friends in the probate courts. Word of any attack on Judge Peyton would spread quickly among the other judges.

Like any marriage, theirs had ups and downs. They had separated years earlier, and John had had a brief relationship with another woman but then returned to the marriage, Tina says.

“We’ve got to tiptoe into this. We can’t get over our skis,” one of the lawyers said, according to Wes. “If we’re going to go down this road, we need to make absolutely sure it’s right. We need proof.”

Wes had his own issues to worry about. About
$1 million he’d been holding in a trust related to another case had gone missing, and fingers were pointed at him. He’d been to rehab for a month in 2015, which he knew would distract from his client’s case. But he and the other lawyers agreed to move forward carefully.

The lawyers tried to track the phone number to see who had sent the text. They traced it to a business in Arlington but could not pinpoint a person. Wes decided to reach out to the judge’s wife, Tina. He looked her up on LinkedIn, found a friend of a friend, and got her cell. He called her that Monday morning.

“Ms. Peyton, you don’t know me, but my name is Wes Holmes, and I’m an attorney here in Dallas,” he said. “I’m sure this must be a difficult time, but I want to talk to you about your husband.”

Tina sounded irritated. “How the hell did you get my number?”

He said he’d been in a big case in her husband’s court, and he had received a text saying her husband may have been in a relationship with one of the attorneys on the other side, Mary Burdette.

“What?” Tina said. While she had known about her husband and Mary, she had not known about Mary’s involvement in that particular case.

“We lost the jury trial,” Wes said. “We’ve appealed it, but if this was going on at the time, I need to know, for my client.” Wes read Tina the text he’d received. “I need to know if it’s true,” he said.

Tina thought about it for a moment. Then she told him her story.

Tina grew up in University Park, the daughter of an obstetrician. After college, she returned to Dallas and worked for Neiman Marcus. When she was in her 20s, the 5-foot-7-inch brunette met a lawyer about a decade older, John Peyton. She walked down the aisle in a tea-length lace gown in 1982.

The couple moved into a house in University Park and had two daughters. Tina became a stay-at-home mom. She volunteered at Hyer Elementary, joined the Junior League, and co-chaired the Cattle Baron’s Ball. Her husband worked as a lawyer and was very involved with the kids, cheering on the sidelines of every soccer game and taking the girls to Indian Princess campouts.

As the girls got older, Tina launched a new career as a political consultant and briefly served as executive director of the Dallas County Republican Party, until she resigned over a difference of opinion with other party leaders. Her husband decided he wanted to become a judge, and Tina helped with his campaigns, drafting mailers, raising money, and walking dozens of blocks. A Republican, John served as a county judge from 2000 to 2006. He was appointed to the probate court in 2009, lost an election the next year, but then was hired as a visiting  judge in 2011 to help with a backlog of cases. He’s been an associate judge on the probate bench ever since. With his pale blue eyes and white beard, John exuded a quiet forbearance. He became known for being a good listener and an even-handed judge.

After the Peytons’ youngest daughter left for college, the couple moved to North Dallas. Tina says she looked forward to their next phase as empty nesters, hoping they would travel and spend more time together.

Like any marriage, theirs had ups and downs. They had separated years earlier, and John had had a brief relationship with another woman but then returned to the marriage, Tina says. (John’s attorney, Randy Johnston, says he was going to file for divorce then, but  John could not stand the thought of “not being in the same house with his girls every morning when they woke up.”)

By late 2014, Tina felt as if her husband had drifted away, and she wondered if he had resumed his earlier relationship. She asked him, “Is she back?” referring to the other woman. “No, no, no,” he said, according to Tina.

But Tina knew something was wrong. She remembers standing in their bathroom one morning, talking as her husband dressed. “I don’t know where you are, but you’re not here, and I wish you would come home,” she told him.

Looking back, if Tina had to pinpoint a time when she began to think her husband was seeing another woman, she would date it there, to the fall of 2014. She says, “That was when I felt like, from an emotional perspective, one day he was there, and the next day he wasn’t.”

It was about that time, in November 2014, that probate lawyer Mary Burdette  joined a team of attorneys fighting a high-dollar case in Judge Peyton’s court. At stake was the estate of Howard Gillis Thomas, who had died in 2010, at the age of 87, and was worth at least $100 million. He had spent a couple decades working with Trammell Crow before starting his own company in 1975, building an empire of industrial warehouses.

Before his death, Thomas had created a detailed succession plan for his company. He and his wife had two children, Robert and Robyn. Although Thomas divided his wealth equally between his children, he left his daughter in charge of his estate and company. This did not make his son happy. Robert had worked at the company for years, until 2000. Despite receiving millions from a trust fund, Robert was constantly in debt. After his father’s death, he blew through at least $10 million, according to court testimony.

Brother and sister had never been close, but their relationship deteriorated in 2013, after their mother died, they both said in depositions. Robyn felt her brother hadn’t helped enough during their mother’s illness; she disinvited him to their annual Thanksgiving dinner. Robert was hurt. He hired a team of attorneys and told his sister he wanted a “business divorce” to split the assets or have her buy him out.

Robyn refused. Their father had left her in charge, Robyn believed, because he had feared Robert would do exactly what he was trying to do: dismantle the company that Thomas had spent a lifetime building. The case eventually was assigned to Judge Peyton.

As the case was heating up, in 2015, Tina received calls about her husband. One attorney called in late January, and she remembers the conversation like this:

“Tina, is there something going on with you and John?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Well, I saw him at lunch the other day with Mary Burdette. And this wasn’t just lunch.”

“Oh, come on,” she said. “They’ve been friends for a long time.”

“Uh-uh,” the lawyer said. “They aren’t just friends.”

It bothered Tina, but she brushed it off.

The next month, in February 2015, John left for an annual ski trip with old friends in Colorado. They called it the Old Farts’ Ski Trip. Tina says she received a call from one of those friends. He said “some woman named Mary” had shown up to ski. She and John were spending a lot of time together.

By the spring of 2015, Tina was suspicious that something was going on between her husband and the reserved gray-eyed, dark-haired attorney. She met her husband in the driveway one evening after work and asked him to go for a ride. Her daughter was home for a visit, and she didn’t want her to hear their conversation.

“What’s going on with you and Mary?” Tina asked. “Are you two so far down the road that we can’t turn this around?”

John denied having an affair and said they were just friends. But he admitted he had been unhappy. He said he wanted some time, maybe six months, to think.

Tina later typed a letter and left it on his pillow.

My Precious John:

I am hurting so badly and not able to think clearly. It was so hurtful to hear you say that you were not happy and had not been happy for a while …

I am so committed to us. For twenty years now I have thought, while certainly not always perfect, we were doing OK …

A few weeks later, Tina recalls, John left the house for a run with the dog. Tina heard his phone vibrating on his bedside table. She looked as a text message appeared, then vanished, on an app called Wickr Me. While John was still on his run, Tina tracked him down, gave him the phone, and said, “She wants you.” (John’s lawyer confirms that he and Mary used an app with vanishing texts to schedule phone calls because they did not want Tina to know about their conversations, but said the two were only friends at this point.)

Tina left the house and returned the next day, tossing clothes into a suitcase. John asked what she was doing, and she told him she couldn’t live like this anymore. He again denied having an affair, repeated his desire for some time, and offered to move out of the house. They decided that they would both remain in the house, but Tina would move to the other side of their brick ranch in the Hockaday neighborhood.’

Hanging on the Telephone: By February 2015, according to the records Tina Peyton gave lawyer Wes Holmes, John Peyton and Mary Burdette were speaking on the phone almost every day, sometimes as often as 12 times a day. This log shows the frequency and times of their conversations: pink are calls from Mary to John; blue are calls from John to Mary.
Hanging on the Telephone: By February 2015, according to the records Tina Peyton gave lawyer Wes Holmes, John Peyton and Mary Burdette were speaking on the phone almost every day, sometimes as often as 12 times a day. This log shows the frequency and times of their conversations: pink are calls from Mary to John; blue are calls from John to Mary.

By that time, Judge Peyton had been presiding over the Thomas case for months. He had sent the lawyers to mediation, but they couldn’t agree. After a four-day evidentiary hearing in March 2015, he issued a key ruling, siding with Mary Burdette’s client. In that ruling, he declined to dissolve the partnership between brother and sister after hearing evidence that splitting the company would cost millions in legal fees and taxes. A district court judge had ruled earlier that statutory grounds existed to dissolve the partnership but said the judge had discretion on whether to do so. After Judge Peyton declined to break up the company, the remaining questions in the case were sent to a jury.

On May 18, 2015, a small army of lawyers filed into Judge Peyton’s court for a trial. On one side sat the son, Robert, surrounded by four lawyers, including Wes Holmes. On the other side sat the daughter, Robyn, surrounded by her own team of five lawyers, including Mary Burdette.

Mary had been hired because of her expertise in the specialized area of probate law and her familiarity with the courts and judges, but she did not play a significant role in the trial, according to her attorney, Randy Johnston, who is also representing the judge.

From the bench, Judge Peyton addressed the attorneys. “Ladies and gentlemen, are we ready to begin the voir dire examination?”

One of Robert’s attorneys, Jim Hartnett Jr., rose from his seat and turned toward the potential jurors crammed into wooden benches. After a short introduction, he got to the point. “This is a case about rich people fighting each other, and you guys all got a lot of stuff to do,” he said. “Does it bother you at all that you might have to sit on a jury deciding a case when, you know, the rich people are just fighting about more money?”

Some said yes, it did bother them. “I’m supposed to fly out of town tomorrow to go see my family, and it kind of bothers me that I’m here. I might lose the privilege of going to see my family because this family can’t get along.”

Eventually, the lawyers settled on six jurors for the nearly two-week trial. When it came time for deliberations, they took only about 20 minutes to return a verdict: for Robyn, on all counts.

Robert’s lawyers began work on their appeal.

After the trial, the Peytons’ marriage continued to disintegrate, everyone involved agrees. Tina says she kept receiving calls about John and Mary, but her husband still insisted they were only friends. That summer, Tina says, she ordered the GPS tracker. But it remained in the box for months; she wasn’t sure she wanted to know the truth. In early December 2015, she says, she put it in John’s car. That’s when she caught him in the Medical City parking garage.

On her way home that night, she called her younger daughter, who lived a couple blocks from her. Here’s how Tina remembers the conversation:

“Have you put the baby to bed?”

“Yes, Mom. What’s wrong?”

“I just caught your dad and Mary together. Can you come home? I don’t want to be alone.”

By the time she got home, her daughter was there. Tina walked into the master closet and grabbed armfuls of her husband’s clothes, throwing them in the driveway. She carried out pile after pile. Tina says she called a police officer who patrolled the neighborhood and told him, “I just caught my husband of 33 years with another woman, and I don’t want him back in the house.” The officer drove over and parked outside.

Tina walked by a hand-painted bowl with the inscription “Tina and John,” a gift from her father. She picked it up from the bar and smashed it to the ground.

Her husband pulled into the driveway while Tina worked in the bedroom. Tina says she heard her husband’s voice and dropped to the floor, laying in a ball and sobbing. She heard her husband ask if he could grab his toothbrush. “Not happening, Dad,” his daughter told him. Then he walked out into the night as his daughter tried to reach her mother’s therapist by phone.

Two months later, in February 2016, John filed for divorce.

By April 2016, when Wes Holmes received the anonymous text about the judge and Mary Burdette, nearly a year had passed since the jury trial, and the case was on appeal. When Tina told him the story of the affair, Wes couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

Slippery Slope: The Peytons pose together while skiing in Crested Butte, Colorado, in 2000. Another ski trip in February 2015, when Mary Burdette spent a lot of time with John to the surprise and concern of his friends, would begin the unraveling of the Peytons’ marriage.
Slippery Slope: The Peytons pose together while skiing in Crested Butte, Colorado, in 2000. Another ski trip in February 2015, when Mary Burdette spent a lot of time with John to the surprise and concern of his friends, would begin the unraveling of the Peytons’ marriage.

“How do you know this is true?” he asked.

“John admitted it to me,” Tina said.

“Do you have any proof?”

“I have phone records.”

Whoa, Wes thought.

Tina had the family’s phone bills and had turned over the records to her divorce lawyer.

The following week, Tina and Wes met for coffee. Wes was nervous; he badly wanted those records but didn’t want to appear overly aggressive. Tina said she still loved John and did not want to hurt him. But she was happy to go after Mary. (Later, she would put an ad about the woman on shesahomewrecker.com.) Tina agreed to give Wes the phone records.

Back at their offices, the lawyers pored over the records. They found hundreds of calls between John and Mary and organized them by date and duration. Then they cross-referenced the calls with key dates in the case. The results were stunning.

Wes has detailed the phone records, spanning from late December 2014 to May 2015, in a court filing. The records show a handful of calls between the two in January, but by February they were speaking nearly every day. They settled into a regular routine: John typically called Mary in the morning between 8 and 9. They’d talk briefly around lunch and then again nearly every evening. They also spoke on weekends. In March and April 2015, the records show calls every day. Some days, there were as many as 12 calls between them.

During the week of the key hearing—from March 21 to March 27, 2015—John and Mary called each other 28 times, speaking  for a total of 468 minutes, the records show. Every day of the hearing, John called Mary before he took the bench. On April 17, Judge Peyton announced one of his most important rulings in the case at 1:30 pm, siding with Mary’s client. Earlier that day, the two had spoken at 7:49 for 17 minutes, at 9:15 for seven minutes, and at 12:10 for 10 minutes. After the ruling, they called each other another six times for a total of 41 minutes.

Wes also found out that John and Mary had together attended a legal conference in New Mexico a week before that ruling. Another attorney had seen them sitting next to each other on the plane. (John’s attorney acknowledges they hung out during the conference, but only as friends.)

By May 2016, Wes felt he had solid evidence of an affair. But he and his colleagues worried about how to move forward. They had already filed an appeal, but appellate judges would only consider what was in the court record, not new information. So Wes filed a bill of review petition with the probate court to grant his client a new trial based on “judicial misconduct which destroyed the integrity of the proceedings.”

But it would be difficult. The courts had intentionally set the bar high, not wanting losers in a case to get another bite at the apple. And after Wes prepared the petition, he knew his colleagues would not want to sign on, fearing blowback from other judges. They contemplated hiring someone else. But Wes volunteered. He’d go it alone.

Before he filed, Wes once again talked with Tina. He wanted to make sure she understood what was about to happen. She might get subpoenaed to testify, under oath, about her husband’s affair. Was she willing to do that?

“Absolutely,” Tina said. “I don’t want to hurt John, but I don’t care if you bury Mary Burdette.”

Wes filed the petition May 10, 2016. He knew it would be radioactive. He had tried to be as vague as possible, not specifically naming Judge Peyton or Mary Burdette. He believed the other side would quickly fold, not wanting the allegations to spread, and agree to a new trial. But a few weeks later, an email popped up on Wes’ computer, alerting him that opposing attorneys had filed a 14-page motion to dismiss. They weren’t giving in.

Not long after that, one of Wes’ colleagues received a call from attorney Randy Johnston, who said he represented both John and Mary.

They are seeing each other now, Randy told him, but they weren’t during the case. “You’re not going to get your new trial, and you’re going to ruin John and Mary in this process,” he said.

Wes kept moving forward.

Wes’ petition put the attorneys for the daughter—who had already won the case in probate court—in an awkward position. They had racked up more than $4 million in legal fees and expenses; Mary had billed $97,528 in 2015. But now, because of the allegations, the case was vulnerable. It would cost more money to defend it.

(The daughter’s lead attorney, Alan Loewinsohn, declined to comment for this story, saying he couldn’t discuss matters still in litigation. He also declined to answer questions about whether he, other members of the defense team, or his client knew about the close relationship between Mary and Judge Peyton during the proceedings. His client, Robyn Conlon, did not respond to requests for comment.)

Alan Loewinsohn filed the motion to dismiss. He did not deny the allegations. His argument was essentially this: even if the judge and lawyer had a close personal relationship, it didn’t necessarily mean the plaintiff did not get a fair trial. And his client’s right to finality—knowing the case was over—trumped other concerns.

Wes was outraged. “Is it even possible that our system would allow judges to rule on matters while they are in a secret sexual relationship with a party or an attorney in the case?” he wrote in a letter to the judge.

From Wes’ perspective, the judge’s objectivity in the case was even more crucial than usual because Judge Peyton had exercised tremendous discretion on that one key issue, whether to dissolve the partnership. If the judge had played only a supervisory role in the case—making evidentiary rulings and keeping order in the court while the jury decided the facts—his objectivity, though important, may have played less of a role in the outcome, Wes said. But the judge had made a major decision, and he’d made it at a time when he was having regular talks with Mary Burdette.

This past July, Judge Peyton’s colleague, Probate Judge Ingrid Warren, heard the motion to dismiss. Wes did not think she would agree to dismiss the case right off. At the very least, he thought, she would allow a discovery process, so that he could pursue more details about the alleged affair. But the judge issued her ruling about two weeks later.

“Defendants argue that to rely on nothing more than allegations by a losing party is a miscarriage of justice,” she wrote. “The trial court agrees.” With that, she dismissed the case.

Wes was shocked. He has appealed the ruling, and the case is ongoing.

Judge John Peyton declined to comment for this story, saying it would be improper for him to talk about pending litigation. Mary Burdette also declined to comment. But they authorized their attorney, Randy Johnston, to speak on their behalf.

Randy, a father of eight, owns about 40 guitars and for years played in a blues band called Blue Collar Crime with three other lawyers. He specializes in suing other attorneys for malpractice. Randy says John is a “principled, religious man” who had been unhappy in his marriage for years. He thought his wife was emotionally unstable, picked fights, and always had to be right. To describe John’s gradual dissatisfaction in the marriage, the attorney compared Tina to green olives. “They’ve got an interesting flavor,” he says, “but then you find out you’re eating a whole plate of green olives, and all of the sudden it’s not as much fun.”

As for how the judge viewed his marriage, the attorney says, “Judge Peyton is a believer in the Biblical scripture that says, ‘We who are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak and not please ourselves.’ He viewed it as his job to simply soldier on. If he was unhappy, well, then deal with it, but don’t hurt other people just so he could be happy. And he did that as long as he could.”

As John struggled with whether to end the marriage, his attorney says, he began confiding in Mary. Randy acknowledges his clients skied together for a week. During the trip, John spoke with Mary about legal issues involving an inheritance and how it would be impacted if he got divorced.

This “informal attorney-client consultation” complicates what Randy Johnston can say about their conversations. In a six-page letter to D Magazine, he writes, “I am unclear on exactly where the line is with regard to the privilege to which Judge Peyton is entitled. It is, however, Judge Peyton’s intent to preserve this attorney-client privilege with Ms. Burdette.”

It was during that trip that an emotional bond formed, and John began to feel an attraction to Mary. But nothing sexual happened, according to their attorney.

After the ski trip, John confessed an “emotional connection” to Mary, and they began talking regularly. John was trying to “summon the emotional courage to pull the trigger and file for divorce,” their lawyer says, and talking to Mary made him feel less alone. They never talked about the case. “At no time do any of those phone calls involve Mary’s law practice or John’s duties as a judge.”

Importantly, Randy Johnston says, his clients began having sex in early December 2015, after the judge’s jurisdiction on the case expired. He declined to pinpoint exactly when this happened. “It is embarrassing and humiliating that anyone even would ask when he had sex for the first time with her,” their attorney says.

In January 2016, Judge Peyton went to the other three probate judges and “informed them of Tina’s false accusations,” their attorney says. Presiding Judge Brenda Thompson told D Magazine that she would not comment on any conversations she had with another judge, though she does acknowledge that she had “heard gossip” about Judge Peyton and Mary Burdette. “But I have not heard anything that would make me think that was true, and I don’t believe it was true,” Thompson says. “I’ve known Judge Peyton for a long time, and I believe that he is a very honorable man, and I know the other person involved, and I believe that person is very honorable also.”

John and Mary remain together, according to their attorney.

“They are very much in love right now,” Randy Johnston says. “They both feel incredibly lucky to have each other. These are not 20-year-olds in some form of spring romance infatuation. These are both very mature adults who had accepted their fate in life and then suddenly, they found a soul mate they were not expecting.”

Mary feels for Tina, but she’s upset by her lies, according to Randy Johnston. All Mary did was “provide support to a friend in pain and—later—fall in love with him. I might add, at a time in her life when she thought that kind of love was no longer going to be available to her.”

Randy believes that the pain felt by Tina has been hijacked by a lawyer desperate for a win in a case he has repeatedly lost. He points to Wes and his own lawsuit, the one in which he is accused of taking $1 million from a trust account in one of his cases. He says Wes needs the money from the Thomas case to pay back money in another case.

Wes’ response: “I am being sued. It’s a significant allegation. I have lawyers and they’re advising me not to comment.” Wes admits that he went to rehab in the summer of 2015. “I am not going to say where or why. I am saying that it was voluntary, that I needed to go, and that I am very grateful for the support I have received from my family and friends.

“But whatever problems I may have should not nullify the fact that my client deserved a fair trial in this case,” he says. And a plaintiff can’t get a fair trial, Wes says, if a judge is having an intimate relationship with a lawyer on one side.

Should Judge Peyton have recused himself from the case? It depends on whether the relationship was intimate. One expert says a judge is ethically obligated to reveal a close personal relationship with an attorney before him or her and allow the opposing attorneys to decide if it matters. Not disclosing such a relationship could lead to judicial discipline, but it isn’t necessarily reason enough to undo the results of a case, says ethics scholar Stephen Gillers, professor at the New York University School of Law.

If the judge and the lawyer have an “intimate relationship,” however, and not just a friendship, then everything changes, Gillers says. “If that happened, then the case should be overturned,” he says.

Texas Rules of Civil Procedure require a judge to step aside if “the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” F. Scott McCown is a former state district judge and now a professor at the University of Texas School of Law. He says, “So the question here is this: do you think a judge who is contemplating a divorce, has developed a reliance on a lawyer of the opposite sex, and is calling her as many times as you’ve got calls here, that he can preside in a case where she’s the lawyer? Or could his impartiality reasonably be questioned?”

McCown says it gets complicated because many judges have relationships with attorneys—from law school, from church, from years in the same courtrooms. Every friendship isn’t disqualifying. But once a friendship turns intimate, a judge’s neutrality comes into question. And actual intercourse isn’t necessarily required for intimacy, McCown says. “If you’re telling somebody your most intimate secrets about how your marriage is going astray, can you fairly rule on their case that’s before you?”

Another issue that experts find troubling is that Judge Peyton is claiming an “attorney-client relationship” with Mary Burdette. “If the judge was receiving legal advice from this lawyer and had an attorney-client relationship, in my opinion he absolutely needed to disclose that,” says Peter Joy, a professor who teaches legal ethics at the School of Law at Washington University in St. Louis. “What client would want to appear before a judge where the opposing lawyer is the judge’s lawyer? I think most judges would conclude that the failure to disclose that demonstrates, at least, the appearance of impropriety.”

Peyton could have avoided the situation by recusing himself at any point during the proceedings, McCown says. No explanation, no questions. Then details of his intimate life could have remained private, rather than becoming grist for lawsuits.

What happens next? It’s in the hands of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth District of Texas at Dallas. But those involved in the case say they are trying to move on.

On a cold morning in February, Tina Peyton stepped out of an elevator on the fourth floor of the civil courts building in downtown Dallas. Her black pumps clicked as she walked toward a courtroom, tissue in hand, eyes swollen from crying.

Just before 8:30 am, Tina and John stood before a judge, separated by their respective attorneys. Tina wept as she answered the judge’s questions. John stood, hands clasped, looking forward and never glancing at his wife. At the end of the brief hearing, the judge finalized their divorce.

Tina drove home to her rental in North Dallas. Cardboard boxes still line the rooms, not fully unpacked a year after her move. She crawled into bed and lay there alone.

John walked out of the hearing and headed to his own court. He put on his robe and went to work hearing cases. “There was a sense of relief at having that drama over. I am ready to get on with the next phase of my life,” he said through his attorney.

His girlfriend, Mary, is embarrassed by all the commotion, her attorney says, but she’ll be okay. “Tomorrow, she will be representing her clients with the same passion as in the past,” he wrote. “And at the end of the day, she will go home to a man she loves and have a glass of wine and a piece of dark chocolate and think about other things.”

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